Sumit Singhal loves modern architecture. He comes from a family of builders who have built more than 20 projects in the last ten years near Delhi in India. He has recently started writing about the architectural projects that catch his imagination.
Tokachi Millennium Forest in Hokkaido, Japan by Dan Pearson Studio
July 3rd, 2012 by Sumit Singhal
Article source: Dan Pearson Studio
Hokkaido, the northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago, equivalent in size to Ireland, is nearly two hours’ flight north of Tokyo. Winter is the dominant season there and it arrives early, with autumn colour arriving in early September, the landscape snow covered by the end of October, and no sign of a thaw until late April. At its coldest the temperature plummets to minus twenty-five degrees centigrade.
The 240 hectare Tokachi Millennium Forest is the brainchild of the entrepreneur Mitsushige Hayashi, who acquired the land with a view to offsetting the carbon footprint of his national newspaper business, Tokachi Mainichi. The masterplan, which I contributed to with the local Japanese landscape designer Fumiaki Takano, is marketed as having a sustainable vision of a thousand years, and this big thinking aims to not only to make the newspaper business carbon neutral, but also to preserve and prevent the further loss of natural habitats on the island to development. Hayashi believes that, in order for this vision to be viable, education is key. Helping it’s users to take ownership of the park is the best way to ensure it’s future.
In a country that sees the greater part of the population urbanised and far removed from landscape and nature, the idea of getting people educated and engaged with the environment is a powerful and novel one. There are brown bears in the forests, hardy wild Hokkaido ponies on the hillsides and the seasons are as dramatic as the mountains and rivers that push through the volcanic terrain. The park aims to draw the public out into this landscape, to open their eyes to nature whilst introducing them to native plants, home grown produce and site specific art.
The park sits at the base of the foothills that lead up into mountainous terrain. Woodland sweeps up the slopes and brisk clear water follows the folds of the land. Intensive agriculture nudges the very edges of the park and the majority of the primary woodland has been felled and replaced by larch plantation. Those woods that appear to be natural are, in fact, the re-growth of white birch, oak and magnolia from earlier de-forestation. This is the area that Takano had already started working on when I arrived to help develop the masterplan.
Sasa, a low, running invasive bamboo, had overwhelmed the woodland understorey but, by constantly strimming it, in three to five years it was kept in check, allowing the seed bank held in the soil from previous generations of plants to re-colonise. To my Western eye, the rejuvenated forest floor was a garden full of treasures that I prize at home.
In those areas of the woodland that have been made accessible with simple raised walkways, the spring starts with white skunk cabbage, marsh marigold and anemone. Whilst the ground is still relatively bare these are followed by sheets of trillium, candelabra primulas and astilbe. Veratrum, arisaema, giant angelicas and aruncus follow and there are pale green cardiocrinum lilies, scented daylilies, asters and iris on the woodland fringes.
Whereas a light touch such as this is all that is required, or indeed appropriate, in much of the park, the areas opened up by earlier agriculture provided a challenge in terms of the site together and helping to pace the visitor experience.
The first area to be addressed was a five-hectare expanse of flat ground in front of the restaurant, as people tended to emerge from the woodland walks and then not dare to move any further for fear of the sudden expanse of landscape. It was important to link it more closely with the mountains, so I developed a series of rolling landforms, modelled on the surrounding hills. What is now called the Earth Garden is an environment made from a series of dynamic waves in the grassland, which coax people into the space by playing on their curiosity. Without being aware of how far they have ventured, visitors now find themselves exploring the rivers and the woods and participating in an art trail, which includes several pieces by Yoko Ono. For those still unsure about exploring the wilds of the forest there are also Segways available for hire, to make the experience less threatening and more fun, as well as guided tours by local naturalists.
Although in some ways it felt wrong to create ornamental gardens here, I was convinced that an ornamental horticultural element was necessary to balance the wild environments and educate visitors to the links between the native flora and plants that they were used to only seeing in gardens. The Meadow Garden is comprised of an adventurous massed planting of ornamental shrubs and 35,000 perennials that are related to and emulate the waves of plants that live together during the short growing season in the forest.
Beyond the Meadow Garden lie the productive Goat Farm, which produces organic cheeses, yogurts and milk, and the Kitchen Garden, which provides vegetables, fruit and herbs for the restaurants on site. In this way the Western ideas of ‘slow food’ and foods of local provenance have been introduced, as well as the, for Japan, unusual practice of communal meals, cooked and eaten in the forest.
Rather like the dormant seed bank in the forest the burgeoning visitor numbers, even during the recent years of economic uncertainty in Japan, demonstrate that Mr. Hayashi and his team have hit upon a winning formula. Regenerating a real respect for the environment, which I hope will mean that, as intended, the Millennium Forest is still here in a thousand years.
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